As the 2018 Six Nations enters the final two rounds, the sense of excitement around this year’s tournament gathers pace. It has been a very successful tournament so far, with high-scoring games full of tries, and plenty of drama with the two standout moments being Sexton’s Drop Goal in Paris and the English chariot crashing in Murrayfield. From an Irish perspective, Joe Schmidt’s team is in pole position for a third championship in five years. There is, however, a political elephant in the room when discussing this tournament – and that is the continued discrimination against emerging European Rugby nations by the Six Nations format.
The Six Nations promotes itself as European Rugby’s pinnacle, with the best European teams competing – but this claim cannot be taken seriously when it is a closed off tournament that has expanded just twice since 1910.
Italy lost convincingly to France in Round 3, consigning them to their fifteenth straight Six Nations defeat. This has left Italy at the bottom of the table and looking very likely to receive a fourth wooden spoon in five years. Italy’s finest ever Rugby player is Sergio Parisse – who has an astonishing 125 international caps for his country but has lost an equally astonishing 92 of these games.
Georgia are ranked the twelfth best international team in the world in the latest World Rankings, two spots better than Italy who are fourteenth. On the other hand, they are streaking ahead in the Rugby Europe Championship, or ‘B Six Nations’. In their first two games, Georgia have won 47-0 and 64-0. They finished third in their Rugby World Cup 215 group: no mean feat considering they were in a group with New Zealand and Argentina. They dominated the previous incarnation of the ‘B Six Nations’, being crowned champions six seasons in a row from up to 2016. In 2016, Georgia once again advanced their reputation when they travelled to the Pacific Islands for the first time and finished unbeaten with a draw against Samoa and wins against Tonga and Fiji. In November 2017, they narrowly lost against Wales in controversial circumstances. Rugby Union is now seen as the national sport in the country and there were 52,000 people in attendance for their game against Russia last year.
The general rugby fan in Ireland is probably aware of the Rugby Europe Championship. What many won’t realise is that this competition is not a one-off tournament between the second-best group of six European teams. It is actually the top level of a five-league system – with each level having five or six teams. In each level, the teams play each other during the same international window as the Six Nations. Even more interestingly, they crown an annual champion for each level, and then have a promotion-and-regulation system between the levels. If the Six Nations were to open up their cosy club to a promotion and relegation system, it would create an annual six-tier European league that would be the envy of every non-European Rugby union, and of many non-rugby sports.
Reflecting their standing England decided that during one of the rest weeks of this year’s Six Nations that they would train with the Georgian team, partly because of the Georgians ferocious scrummaging skills.
Expansion Plans are denied in part due to “Commercial” considerations.
There are currently no plans for even a discussion on Georgia’s possible place among the Six Nations elite. While Georgia have been winning consistency in Rugby Europe Championship, they argue that if they were allowed to join the Northern Hemisphere’s premier competition it would help them break into the top echelon of the sport. John Feehan, the Six Nations CEO, has publicly ruled out the possibility on a number of occasions. “This is a subject that crops up after every World Cup but we have no intention of changing the structure of the competition any time soon. This is a closed tournament, by agreement amongst the countries currently competing in it, and we believe we’re in a very strong position, both in sporting and commercial terms”.
The Six Nations is a closed competition between six European countries, whose Rugby Unions own and control the tournament. Feehan views the Six Nations as having “the strongest teams in Europe already involved” and that they would not want to “exclude anyone already involved. And if we attempted to increase the number of matches, there would immediately be an issue surrounding fixture congestion. This is not a subject on our agenda and, frankly, it is not the job of the Six Nations to provide solutions for Georgia, Romania or anyone else”.
The Georgians argue otherwise and they have a good deal of support among those who fear that, without regular top-class exposure, they will struggle to maintain a signicant presence at international level. England’s RFU CEO Steve Brown last year publicly supported the idea of Georgia’s inclusion in the Six Nations. Brown said: ‘We need to keep an open mind. The world keeps changing, the fan base keeps changing and becoming more sophisticated”.
A historic tournament that has grown stale
History drives the character of the Six Nations. Scotland and England faced off in the first ever rugby international in 1871, known as the Calcutta Cup from 1879. For context, the first international soccer game was played in 1872 – also between Scotland and England. The original version of the Six Nations was first played in 1883 as the Home Nations Championship among the four then members of the UK — England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It expanded to the Five Nations Championship in 1910 with the addition of France. 90 years later, in 2000, the tournament finally expanded to its current format with the addition of Italy. It now risks staleness as a cosy club with no inclusion policy for emerging European countries.
The reluctance to consider any expansion is completely at odds with World Rugby’s aim for a global game, but Feehan is adamant that the rugby’s governing body cannot make any changes to the structure of the 6 Nations. ‘World rugby have no input into this tournament. They have no control over it, no ownership of it. It’s not theirs to tell us what to do with it.
‘It is World Rugby’s job to develop the game. Our job is to run the Six Nations as we see fit. Do the unions have a responsibility to help develop and expand the game? Probably, yes, but should that go as far as messing with the most important tournament? Probably not. Our primary role is not to develop other unions but if we can help, we do”.
Options for the expansion plan
Option 1 : Staight promotion / relegation system
The most obvious way to implement an expansion would be to keep the six-team format for the Six Nations, and much like the English Premiership (in Rugby and Football) relegate the team that comes sixth in the Six Nations and promote the winner of the “B Six Nations”. This would keep things simple, and would make every result count to the very last game. A game between Scotland and Italy on the final weekend of the Six Nations would no longer be a dead rubber, or a “Wooden Spoon Final”, as both could be fighting for their place in the competition the following year.
One of the main reasons that rears its head against a promotion relegation system is that it could potentially turn into a “Yo-Yo” system – e.g. Italy and Georgia would swap places each year.
Option 2 : Playoff game between the last placed Six Nations Team and winner of the “B Six Nations”
This is a championship that took 90 years to expand from a five-team to six-team tournament. This option would be the preferred option of the incumbent Six Nations sides, as it gives them a second chance to fight for their survival if they were to finish last in the Six Nations. While it would be a fantastic spectacle, trying to organise a play-off game, or even a two-leg playoff, would be quite difficult with the current international windows being so limited. All teams would have to leave a weekend free for a potential game, but it would be a lucrative sponsorship and TV opportunity.
Option 3 : Base on four years of results
A system could be implemented that combines the results of the previous four Six Nations campaigns to put together an overall table to decide who gets relegated. This could start at the beginning of every World Cup cycle, so the 2020 Six Nations would be the first year. In this example, it would still be Italy getting relegated, but at least it would be a fairer system – and one that would prevent a Superpower such as Ireland or Wales from a year in the Second Tier if they had one bad tournament.
World Rugby has no power to overrule the Six Nations decision to leave the door closed. It is up to the Six Nations to pave the way for an inclusive, multi-tiered rugby championship that would be the envy of every other rugby mad continent. This should be reason enough, but they should also consider the potential for new sponsorship opportunities, more TV markets, and that handling this properly could lead to proud sporting nations such as Spain and Germany taking more than a passing interest in Rugby. Current attempts to rejuvenate the format of the Six Nations, such as the introduction of the Bonus Point system, have barely made any impact. The options for expansion are not drastic, they are simple to implement and would position the Six Nations as a forward- thinking, open-minded tournament for all of Europe, not just six countries to the west of the continent. It is time to tell the Georgians, and indeed the rest of Europe, that they will be welcome, if they merit it, at the top table.